013 – Simple as ABC – 1939

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If people do not believe that mathematics is simple,
it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.  John von Neumann

Dr John Vincent Atanasoff, the son of a Bulgarian immigrant, found his mechanical Monroe calculator inadequate for his doctoral thesis in theoretical physics.  As assistant professor at Iowa State College, he experimented with thirty Monroe calculators yoked to a single shaft with IBM tabulators as slaved devices; he caused consternation when he modified the leased IBM kit.  In 1937 he developed an analogue calculator but he came across the same problems as Babbage and Zuse – poor mechanical accuracy. 

He turned his attention to finding an electronic solution.  From 1939 he worked with graduate student Clifford Berry to build the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC).

1942 The ABC was all binary, weighed 700 lbs (320kg), with 600 vacuum tubes and a mile (1.6km) of wiring; it was the first to separate computation and memory.

There were two main failings – it required operator involvement during processing and its intermediate results storage was an unreliable mechanical paper card reader-writer.

Atanasoff’s paper ‘Computing Machines for the Solution of Large Systems of Linear Algebraic Equations’ was sent to a patent lawyer.  A visit to the patent office in Washington DC confirmed it to be patentable but a wartime role for Atanasoff meant the patent filing was left to the university – and it failed to do so.

1940 Atanasoff discussed his work on the ABC with John Mauchly and subsequently Mauchly visited Iowa to review the ABC computer and its documentation.

1942 Mauchly issued a memo proposing the first large-scale general-purpose digital electrical computer and later visited Atanasoff to discuss his computing theories; he never mentioned he himself was working on building a computer. 

With J Presper Eckert, Mauchly co-designed the ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer) which was announced in 1946.

1954 The patent for ENIAC was progressing for its new owners Sperry Rand, who proposed to levy royalties, when IBM approached Atanasoff to contest it by showing the ABC to be ‘prior art’.  IBM backed off after negotiating a deal with Sperry-Rand.

1967 Honeywell received a $250m royalty claim from the ENIAC owners and promptly objected to the patent.  The trial lasted 135 days with 77 witnesses and the transcript went to over 20,000 pages.  Six years later judgment held that the ENIAC had drawn inspiration from the earlier ABC.

The judgment stated, ‘Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic digital computer, but instead derived that subject matter from one Dr John Vincent Atanasoff.’  This ruling received next-to-no attention as the Watergate scandal sucked up column-inches the next day.

Perhaps Honeywell and IBM had considered the end game and precluded Atanasoff from levying royalty payments of his own; in any case he took no steps to do so.

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